If you think that Outlander is a show whose audience should primarily be women, then you have missed the point of the show and the book series it adapts: it’s the purest of storytelling, epic in scope, but familiar and intimate in its subject matter. Love between two people and the resulting familial bonds set within a context that brings complexities well-known to many generations: politics at the macro and micro level; war and its tragedies; and pioneering with its many risks. If you think all of this is merely women’s literature, then you are missing out on so much.
This week’s episode “Prestonpans” tells the story of the experience of the Jacobite Army and the Frasers’ involvement in this early battle of the Rising. This episode’s gaze at the realities of war from both the men’s and women’s sides is unflinching in its intensity and the ensemble cast plays so seamlessly off of one another in such a way that it’s clear how well the writers and producers have drawn the characters each plays.
“The Hero of the Hour Has Shat His Pants”
The Jacobite army, now united and having taken Perth and Edinburgh, sits outside of Prestonpans, with the British army in its sights. The problem is, the commanders can’t agree on a strategy because of the land that lay between them: a so-called meadow, which is more like a bog instead. Dougal volunteers to test the land between the two armies to see if it’s fit for the Jacobite men that sit on the precipice of attack, but, as Dougal finds after being shot at a number of times, the ground is too boggy and soft for the men to march across without being at risk of utter slaughter by the British men on the other side.
Instead, a young local brings news of a previously unknown path that bypasses the boggy land and will allow the Jacobites to surprise the British on the other side of the meadow. Jamie and the men prepare for battle, while Claire and the women assembled to help her prepare to care for the wounded men of both armies. The goodbyes between Claire and the men she had come to know and love (or at least grow fond of) are tender: Angus asks for a kiss; Rupert refuses to share any final sentiments; Murtagh seeks the reassurance of history; and Jamie takes one last intimate kiss before she sends her soldier on her way.
The army, led by the Bonnie Prince and his commanders, start down the hidden path toward battle while Claire and the women prepare, all tense with anticipation and fear. The Jacobites, hidden by the early morning fog, surprise the British and rout Cope’s troops in fifteen minutes, a great victory. The British lose a number of men to death and injury; the Jacobites count only fifty dead or wounded. The battle itself is chaotic and unflinchingly real, the sounds heard by the women as they prepare for the inevitable wounded. We see the men screaming, jabbing with swords, twisting and moving, blood ample, horses and men falling. The women tend to the wounded as they come in and we see familiar faces among them, with the two Lallybroch men, Ross and Kincaid, the first to come in, followed by Angus with Rupert. Kincaid lies dead; Rupert has a serious gash that Claire immediately begins to close. Angus rejects any care for himself, worried for his friend, but Rupert worries about Angus too, muttering about a cannon blast.
Once the battle is finished, Dougal goes around taking care of the mortally wounded, speeding their inevitable deaths. He encounters Lieutenant Jeremy Foster, the young soldier who had accompanied Claire and Dougal in the first season when she went to speak with the British about returning to Inverness and then ran afoul of Black Jack Randall instead, an encounter which necessitated her marriage to Jamie in the first place. Lieutenant Foster voices what we already know, that the Jacobites are doomed to failure, and Dougal runs him through for it. The Mackenzie war chieftain returns to the camp, ebullient at the victory and ready to attack the British wounded in the field hospital. The Bonnie Prince, to his credit, sees Dougal’s display of bloodthirst and is repelled by him, ordering him out of the army. Jamie rescues his uncle, suggesting that he become the commander of a unit of dragoons, scouting the British army’s movements and interrupting their supply lines. Dougal understands what Jamie is doing; he says he is grateful, but he also sees that Jamie has the ear of the BPC and is showing him up, which Dougal does not care for.
With everyone gathered and supposedly safe, the celebration of their victory begins, but Angus suddenly falls to the ground, blood spurting from his lips. The cannon blast that Rupert had muttered about had injured Angus, unbeknownst to anyone else, and his internal injuries caused his collapse and sudden death. The group is left stunned and we are reminded that no one escapes war unscathed. If you’ve been watching from the first episode of this season, you know what’s coming and that only heightens the drama of this conflict and those to come.
“Let the Writing of the Ballads Begin!”
This episode had everything that I have come to expect from Outlander: real emotion, real action, and real characters. Sure, Angus’s death was a surprise, but the conversations prior to battle between Ross and Kincaid and Rupert and Angus foreshadowed something happening. For book readers, we may have expected a different death, but, with three episodes to go, the possibilities of what is still to come and the drama of those final three episodes leave open so many avenues the writers and producers could take to tell those stories. The dialogue around this battle, from Jamie and his men to Claire and the women tasked with helping her, shied away from nothing and instead confronted the realities of what this would have looked like in a way that should leave no doubt that this show does not have a limited audience, but should appeal to a myriad of audience for a number of reasons.
One of the benefits of seeing Outlander adapted is seeing the new ways to approach familiar scenes. The writers have taken care to draw these characters as finely as possible; I’ve heard many a complaint about what has changed between book and television, but, honestly, the changes don’t seem so dramatic that it takes away from the story. I don’t see careless moves or odd dialogue, but thoughtful changes that serve the story in the long run. I see how they are crafting the story; Angus is a minor character in the books, but this Angus had a larger role and his death is necessary to drive home the tragedy of battle. Peripheral characters like Ross and Kincaid are reminders, but Angus drives the point home. Viewers care about Angus because they have grown to know him from the first episode of Outlander on. His death is necessary because this is the world that Claire inhabits, a place where tragedy strikes wantonly and with such force and familiarity that she can’t escape it. We need this reminder because, as the season’s first episode told us, she’s about to experience the worst loss of all. Angus’s loss is tragic and sad not simply because he is someone she cares about, but because the randomness reminds her – and us, by extension – that this sort of loss spares no one, not even the main character. If the first season of Game of Thrones shows viewers nothing else, it definitely shows how indiscriminate life (and storytelling) is. Outlander continues this sentiment with the loss of Angus and the many losses still to come.
Next Week: Herself Writes an Episode!
That’s right! Next week’s episode, “Vengeance Is Mine,” has a writing credit with the name of Diana Gabaldon, or, as Sassenachs may know her, Herself, the creator of all things Outlander. It will be interesting to see what the writer of this books this show is based upon will cook up for the television audience.
Until then, here is the preview for next week’s episode, “Vengeance Is Mine”: